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Narcissus (genus) facts for kids

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Narcissus 12 7 8 3.jpg
Narcissus pseudonarcissus flower
Scientific classification

Narcissus is a genus of predominantly spring perennial plants of the Amaryllidaceae (amaryllis) family. Various common names including daffodil, daffadowndilly, narcissus and jonquil are used to describe all or some members of the genus.

Narcissus has conspicuous flowers with six petal-like tepals surmounted by a cup- or trumpet-shaped corona. The flowers are generally white or yellow (also orange or pink in garden varieties), with either uniform or contrasting coloured tepals and corona.

Narcissus were well known in ancient civilisation, both medicinally and botanically, but formally described by Linnaeus in his Species Plantarum (1753). The genus is generally considered to have about ten sections with approximately 50 species.

The species are native to meadows and woods in southern Europe and North Africa with a centre of diversity in the Western Mediterranean, particularly the Iberian peninsula. Both wild and cultivated plants have naturalised widely, and were introduced into the Far East prior to the tenth century.

Narcissi tend to be long-lived bulbs, which propagate by division, but are also insect-pollinated. Known pests, diseases and disorders include viruses, fungi, the larvae of flies, mites and nematodes. Some Narcissus species have become extinct, while others are threatened by increasing urbanisation and tourism.

Historical accounts suggest narcissi have been cultivated from the earliest times, but became increasingly popular in Europe after the 16th century and by the late 19th century were an important commercial crop centred primarily on the Netherlands.

Today narcissi are popular as cut flowers and as ornamental plants in private and public gardens.


Narcissus bulb with shoot and roots
Narcissus shoots emerging, with sheathed leaves
Narcissus floral morphology
Solitary Narcissus flower, prior to opening, emerging from spathe
N. papyraceus, showing umbel formation
N. pseudonarcissus showing from top to bottom, spathe, floral tube, tepals, corona
N. cyclamineus, showing reflexed tepals
N. bulbocodium showing prominent corona and reduced tepals
N. triandrus, showing pendent orientation and reflexed tepals
Narcissus flower, showing erect orientation
Narcissus flower, showing outer white tepals with a central yellow corona (paraperigonium)
Tazetta cultivar, showing stamens surrounding central stigma
Close-up of stamen filaments and anthers, with stigma
Gynoecium and fruit
Longitudinal section of ovary with ovules
Cross section of ovary
Narcissus capsule dispersing seed


Narcissus is a genus of perennial herbaceous bulbiferous geophytes, dying back after flowering to an underground storage bulb. They regrow in the following year from brown-skinned ovoid bulbs with pronounced necks, and reach heights of 5–80 cm depending on the species. Dwarf species such as N. asturiensis have a maximum height of 5–8 cm, while Narcissus tazetta may grow as tall as 80 cm.

The plants are scapose, having a single central leafless hollow flower stem (scape). Several green or blue-green, narrow, strap-shaped leaves arise from the bulb. The plant stem usually bears a solitary flower, but occasionally a cluster of flowers (umbel). The flowers, which are usually conspicuous and white or yellow, sometimes both or rarely green, consist of a perianth of three parts. Closest to the stem (proximal) is a floral tube above the ovary, then an outer ring composed of six tepals (undifferentiated sepals and petals), and a central disc to conical shaped corona. The flowers may hang down (pendent), or be erect. There are six pollen bearing stamens surrounding a central style. The ovary is inferior (below the floral parts) consisting of three chambers (trilocular). The fruit consists of a dry capsule that splits (dehisces) releasing numerous black seeds.

The bulb lies dormant after the leaves and flower stem die back and has contractile roots that pull it down further into the soil. The flower stem and leaves form in the bulb, to emerge the following season. Most species are dormant from summer to late winter, flowering in the spring, though a few species are autumn flowering.



The pale brown-skinned ovoid tunicate bulbs have a membranous tunic and a corky stem (base or basal) plate from which arise the adventitious root hairs in a ring around the edge, which grow up to 40 mm in length. Above the stem plate is the storage organ consisting of bulb scales, surrounding the previous flower stalk and the terminal bud. The scales are of two types, true storage organs and the bases of the foliage leaves. These have a thicker tip and a scar from where the leaf lamina became detached. The innermost leaf scale is semicircular only partly enveloping the flower stalk (semisheathed).(see Hanks Fig 1.3). The bulb may contain a number of branched bulb units, each with two to three true scales and two to three leaf bases. Each bulb unit has a life of about four years.

Once the leaves die back in summer, the roots also wither. After some years, the roots shorten pulling the bulbs deeper into the ground (contractile roots). The bulbs develop from the inside, pushing the older layers outwards which become brown and dry, forming an outer shell, the tunic or skin. Up to 60 layers have been counted in some wild species. While the plant appears dormant above the ground the flower stalk which will start to grow in the following spring, develops within the bulb surrounded by two to three deciduous leaves and their sheaths. The flower stem lies in the axil of the second true leaf.

The single leafless stem or scape, appearing from early to late spring depending on the species, bears from 1 to 20 blooms. Stem shape depends on the species, some are highly compressed with a visible seam, while others are rounded. The stems are upright and located at the centre of the leaves. In a few species such as N. hedraeanthus the stem is oblique (asymmetrical). The stem is hollow in the upper portion but towards the bulb is more solid and filled with a spongy material.

Narcissus plants have one to several basal leaves which are linear, ligulate or strap shaped (long and narrow), sometimes channelled adaxially to semiterete, and may (pedicellate) or may not (sessile) have a petiole stalk. The leaves are flat and broad to cylindrical at the base and arise from the bulb. The emerging plant generally has two leaves, but the mature plant usually three, rarely four, and they are covered with a cutin containing cuticle, giving them a waxy appearance. Leaf colour is light green to blue-green. In the mature plant the leaves extend higher than the flower stem, but in some species the leaves are low hanging. The leaf base is encased in a colourless sheath. After flowering the leaves turn yellow and die back once the seed pod (fruit) is ripe.

Jonquils usually have dark green, round, rush-like leaves.

Distribution and habitat


Although the family Amaryllidaceae are predominantly tropical or subtropical as a whole, Narcissus occurs primarily in Mediterranean region, with a centre of diversity in the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal).

A few species extend the range into southern France, Italy, the Balkans (N. poeticus, N. serotinus, N. tazetta), and the Eastern Mediterranean (N. serotinus) including Israel (N. tazetta).

The occurrence of N. tazetta in western and central Asia, China and Japan are considered introductions, albeit ancient (see Eastern cultures). While the exact northern limit of the natural range is unknown, the occurrences of wild N. pseudonarcissus in Great Britain, middle and northern Europe are similarly considered ancient introductions.

While Amaryllidaceae is not native to North America, it grows well in USDA hardiness zones 3B through 10, which encompass most of the United States and Canada.


Their native habitats are very varied, with different elevations, bioclimatic areas and substrates, being found predominantly in open spaces ranging from low marshes to rocky hillsides and montane pastures, and including grassland, scrub, woods, river banks and rocky crevices. Although requirements vary, overall there is a preference for acidic soils, although some species will grow on limestone. Narcissus scaberulus will grow on granite soils where it is moist in the growing season but dry in the summer, while Narcissus dubius thrives best in regions with hot and dry summers.


Life cycle

Narcissus are long-lived perennial geophytes with winter-growing and summer-dormant bulbs that are mainly synanthous (leaves and flowers appearing at the same time). While most species flower in late winter to spring, five species are autumn flowering (N. broussonetii, N. cavanillesii, N. elegans, N. serotinus, N. viridiflorus). By contrast these species are hysteranthous (leaves appear after flowering).

Flower longevity varies by species and conditions, ranging from 5–20 days. After flowering leaf and root senescence sets in, and the plant appears to be 'dormant' till the next spring, conserving moisture. However the dormant period is also one of considerable activity within the bulb primordia.

Plants may spread clonally through the production of daughter bulbs and division producing clumps. Narcissus species hybridise readily, although the fertility of the offspring will depend on the parental relationship.


The flowers are insect pollinated, the major pollinators being bees, butterflies, flies, and hawkmoths, while the highly scented night flowering N. viridiflorus is pollinated by crepuscular moths.

Early illustrations

Of all the flowering plants, the bulbous have been the most popular for cultivation. Of these, narcissi are one of the most important spring flowering bulb plants in the world.

Narcissi became an important horticultural crop in Western Europe in the latter part of the nineteenth century, beginning in England between 1835 and 1855 and the end of the century in the Netherlands. By the beginning of the twentieth century 50 million bulbs of N. Tazetta "Paperwhite" were being exported annually from the Netherlands to the United States.

Daffodil trumpets

Narcissi are now popular as ornamental plants for gardens, parks and as cut flowers, providing colour from the end of winter to the beginning of summer in temperate regions. They are one of the most popular spring flowers and one of the major ornamental spring flowering bulb crops, being produced both for their bulbs and cut flowers, though cultivation of private and public spaces is greater than the area of commercial production. Over a century of breeding has resulted in thousands of varieties and cultivars being available from both general and specialist suppliers. They are normally sold as dry bulbs to be planted in late summer and autumn. They are one of the most economically important ornamental plants. Plant breeders have developed some daffodils with double, triple, or ambiguously multiple rows and layers of segments. Many of the breeding programs have concentrated on the corona (trumpet or cup), in terms of its length, shape, and colour, and the surrounding perianth or even as in varieties derived from N. poeticus a very reduced form.

In gardens

While some wild narcissi are specific in terms of their ecological requirements, most garden varieties are relatively tolerant of soil conditions, however very wet soils and clay soils may benefit from the addition of sand to improve drainage. The optimum soil is a neutral to slightly acid pH of 6.5–7.0.

Bulbs offered for sale are referred to as either 'round' or 'double nose'.

Narcissi are well suited for planting under small thickets of trees, where they can be grouped as 6–12 bulbs. They also grow well in perennial borders, especially in association with day lilies which begin to form their leaves as the narcissi flowers are fading.


The commonest form of commercial propagation is by twin-scaling, in which the bulbs are cut into many small pieces but with two scales still connected by a small fragment of the basal plate. The fragments are disinfected and placed on nutrient media. Some 25–35 new plants can be produced from a single bulb after four years. Micropropagation methods are not used for commercial production but is used for establishing commercial stock.



Narcissus 'Thalia'
N. triandrus 'Thalia', considered a grave flower

The daffodil is the national flower of Wales, associated with Saint David's Day (March 1). The narcissus is also a national flower symbolising the new year or Newroz in the Iranian culture.

In the West the narcissus is perceived as a symbol of vanity, in the East as a symbol of wealth and good fortune (see Eastern cultures), while in Persian literature, the narcissus is a symbol of beautiful eyes.

In western countries the daffodil is also associated with spring festivals such as Lent and its successor Easter. In Germany the wild narcissus, N. pseudonarcissus, is known as the Osterglocke or "Easter bell." In the United Kingdom the daffodil is sometimes referred to as the Lenten lily.

Although prized as an ornamental flower, some people consider narcissi unlucky, because they hang their heads implying misfortune. White narcissi, such as N triandrus "Thalia", are especially associated with death, and have been called grave flowers. In Ancient Greece narcissi were planted near tombs, and Robert Herrick describes them as portents of death, an association which also appears in the myth of Persephone and the underworld (see The Arts, below).



Demeter rejoiced, for her daughter was by her side
Demeter and Persephone surrounded by daffodils - "Demeter rejoiced, for her daughter was by her side"

The decorative use of narcissi dates as far back as ancient Egyptian tombs, and frescoes at Pompeii. They are mentioned in the King James Version of the Bible as the Rose of Sharon and make frequent appearances in classical literature.

Greek culture

The narcissus appears in two Graeco-Roman myths, that of the youth Narcissus who was turned into the flower of that name, and of the Goddess Persephone snatched into the Underworld by the god Hades while picking the flowers. The narcissus is considered sacred to both Hades and Persephone, and to grow along the banks of the river Styx in the underworld.

The Greek poet Stasinos mentioned them in the Cypria amongst the flowers of Cyprus. The legend of Persephone comes to us mainly in the seventh century BC Homeric Hymn To Demeter, where the author describes the narcissus, and its role as a lure to trap the young Persephone. The flower, she recounts to her mother was the last flower she reached for before being seized.

Other Greek authors making reference to the narcissus include Sophocles and Plutarch. Sophocles, in Oedipus at Colonus utilises narcissus in a symbolic manner, implying fertility, allying it with the cults of Demeter and her daughter Kore (Persephone), and by extension, a symbol of death. Jebb comments that it is the flower of imminent death with its fragrance being narcotic, emphasised by its pale white colour. Just as Persephone reaching for the flower heralded her doom, the youth Narcissus gazing at his own reflection portended his own death. Plutarch refers to this in his Symposiacs as numbing the nerves causing a heaviness in the limbs. He refers to Sophocles' "crown of the great Goddesses", which is the source of the English phrase "Chaplet of the infernal Gods" incorrectly attributed to Socrates.

A passage by Moschus, describes fragrant narcissi. Homer in his Odyssey described the underworld as having Elysian meadows carpeted with flowers, thought to be narcissus, as described by Theophrastus. A similar account is provided by Lucian describing the flowers in the underworld. The myth of the youth Narcissus is also taken up by Pausanias. He believed that the myth of Persephone long antedated that of Narcissus, and hence discounts the idea the flower was named after the youth.

Roman culture

Virgil, the first known Roman writer to refer to the narcissus, does so in several places, for instance twice in the Georgics. Virgil refers to the cup shaped corona of the narcissus flower, allegedly containing the tears of the self-loving youth Narcissus. Milton makes a similar analogy "And Daffodillies fill their Cups with Tears". Virgil also mentions narcissi three times in the Eclogues.

The poet Ovid also dealt with the mythology of the narcissus. In his Metamorphoses, he recounts the story of the youth Narcissus who, after his death, is turned into the flower, and it is also mentioned in Book 5 of his poem Fasti. This theme of metamorphosis was broader than just Narcissus; for instance see crocus, laurel and hyacinth.

Western culture

I wandered lonely as a Cloud

Decorative I.jpg wandered lonely as a Cloud
That floats on high o'er Vales and Hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd
A host of dancing Daffodils;
Along the Lake, beneath the trees,
Ten thousand dancing in the breeze.

The waves beside them danced, but they
Outdid the sparkling waves in glee: –
A poet could not but be gay
In such a laughing company:
I gaz'd – and gaz'd – but little thought
What wealth the shew to me had brought:

For oft when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude,
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the Daffodils.

William Wordsworth (1804 version)
282 Hager Bot Unterricht 1885.png

Although there is no clear evidence that the flower's name derives directly from the Greek myth, this link between the flower and the myth became firmly part of western culture. The narcissus or daffodil is the most loved of all English plants, and appears frequently in English literature. Many English writers have referred to the cultural and symbolic importance of Narcissus). No flower has received more poetic description except the rose and the lily, with poems by authors from John Gower, Shakespeare, Milton (see Roman culture, above), Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats. Frequently the poems deal with self-love derived from Ovid's account. Gower's reference to the yellow flower of the legend has been assumed to be the daffodil or Narcissus, though as with all references in the older literature to the flower that sprang from the youth's death, there is room for some debate as to the exact species of flower indicated, some preferring Crocus. Spenser announces the coming of the Daffodil in Aprill of his Shepheardes Calender (1579).

Shakespeare, who frequently uses flower imagery, refers to daffodils twice in The Winter's Tale and also The Two Noble Kinsmen. Robert Herrick alludes to their association with death in a number of poems. Among the English romantic movement writers none is better known than William Wordsworth's short 1804 poem I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud which has become linked in the popular mind with the daffodils that form its main image. Wordsworth also included the daffodil in other poems. Yet the description given of daffodils by his sister, Dorothy is just as poetic, if not more so, just that her poetry was prose and appears almost an unconscious imitation of the first section of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (see Greek culture, above). Among their contemporaries, Keats refers to daffodils among those things capable of bringing "joy for ever".

More recently A. E. Housman, using one of the daffodil's more symbolic names (see Symbols), wrote The Lent Lily in A Shropshire Lad, describing the traditional Easter death of the daffodil.

In Black Narcissus, Rumer Godden describes the disorientation of English nuns in the Indian Himalayas, and gives the plant name an unexpected twist, alluding both to narcissism and the effect of the perfume Narcisse Noir (Caron) on others. The novel was later adapted into the 1947 British film of the same name. The narcissus also appears in German literature such as that of Paul Gerhardt.

In the visual arts, narcissi are depicted in three different contexts, mythological (Narcissus, Persephone), floral art, or landscapes. The Narcissus story has been popular with painters and the youth is frequently depicted with flowers to indicate this association. The Persephone theme is also typified by Waterhouse in his Narcissus, the floral motif by van Scorel and the landscape by Van Gogh's Undergrowth.

Narcissi first started to appear in western art in the late middle ages, in panel paintings, particularly those depicting crucifixion. For instance that of the Westfälischer Meister in Köln in the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne, where daffodils symbolise not only death but also hope in the resurrection, because they are perennial and bloom at Easter.

Narcissi in art

Eastern cultures

In Chinese culture Narcissus tazetta subsp. chinensis (Chinese sacred lilies), which can be grown indoors, is widely used as an ornamental plant. It was probably introduced to China by Arab traders travelling the Silk Road prior to the Song Dynasty for medicinal use. Spring-flowering, they became associated with Chinese New Year, signifying good fortune, prosperity and good luck and there are many legends in Chinese culture associated with Narcissus. In contrast to the West, narcissi have not played a significant part in Chinese Garden art, however, Zhao Mengjian in the Southern Song Dynasty was noted for his portrayal of narcissi. Narcissus bulb carving and cultivation has become an art akin to Japanese bonsai. The Japanese novel Narcissu contains many references to the narcissus, where the main characters set out for the famed narcissus fields on Awaji Island.

Islamic culture

Narcissi are one of the most popular garden plants in Islamic culture. Prior to the Arab conquest of Persia, the Persian ruler Khosrau I is said to have not been able to tolerate them at feasts because they reminded him of eyes, an association that persists to this day, as described by the poet Ghalib. The eye imagery is also found in a number of poems by Abu Nuwas. Another poet who refers to narcissi, is Rumi. Even the prophet Mohammed is said to have praised the narcissus.

Narcissi in Eastern and Islamic cultures

Popular culture

The word "daffodil" has been used widely in popular culture, from Dutch cars (DAF Daffodil) to Swedish rock bands (The Daffodils) to slurs against homosexuals and cross-dressers (as in the film J. Edgar, when Hoover's mother explains why real-life cross-dresser Barton Pinkus was called "Daffy" (short for "Daffodil" and the equivalent of a pansy), and admonishes, "I'd rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son".


In some areas where narcissi are prevalent, their blooming in spring is celebrated in festivals. For instance, the slopes around Montreux, Switzerland and its associated riviera come alive with blooms each May (May Snow) at the annual Narcissi Festival. Festivals are also held in many other countries.


Various cancer charities around the world, such as the American Cancer Society, Cancer Society, Cancer Council, Irish Cancer Society, and Marie Curie in the UK use the daffodil as a fundraising symbol on "Daffodil Days".

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